Another boondoggle to add to the Lee P. Brown files

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This KPRC-2 story on Houston’s (not-functioning-very-well) automated water meter reading system is mind-blowing:

In 1999, former Houston Mayor Lee Brown trumpeted Houston as the first city to have a completely automated water meter reading system.

The goal of the program was to save the city millions of dollars by eliminating a small army of employees who physically read the meters. Instead, radio transmitters beam the information from the meter to a computer in a van as it drives by.

The project was supposed to cost $50 million and be complete in 2003. Instead, it’s now costing approximately $75 million and won’t be complete until 2008.

“The failure rate is beyond anything that we should have experienced,” Houston City Controller Annise Parker said.

The Troubleshooters started asking questions about this program last summer. That prompted Parker to do her own review. She found the radio transmitters on the water meters have a 47 percent failure rate.

Forty-seven percent failure rate? $25 million cost overrun? Where’s THAT money coming from?

But wait, it gets worse:

“That’s something that we’re not really proud of,” said Wes Johnson, with the public works department.

Johnson said part of the problem is the new meters did not stand up that well to Houston’s climate.

“This is cutting edge technology. Nobody has ever done this before in a city this size,” he said.

Holy cow. A $50 million project with cutting edge technology that had never been done on this scale before, and no one thought to ask if it could stand up to Houston’s weather??? Again, who’s footing the bill for all this?

But wait, there’s more:

The other part of the problem came when the city first started installing the transmitters. Initially, city employees did the work.

“A significant number of these were damaged. Some of our guys and gals didn’t exactly know how to install them and damaged them during installation,” Johnson said.


But wait, there’s even more:

But that’s not the end of it. There are still at least 55,000 of the transmitters that are not working, are out of warranty and the city has no idea why they won’t work.

“It almost reminds you of the $700 toilet that the Air Force bought years ago. It’s sort of like, ‘How bad can it get for the taxpayer?'” Houston City Councilman Michael Berry said.

How bad? So far, it’s cost more than $3 million just to replace bad transmitters.

This is a perfect example of why government is rarely the answer to…anything.

So, here are the obligatory questions: Who’s the genius who sold the city this project? What company is getting all this money for a product that doesn’t work? Who’s the moron who had untrained city employees installing what are obviously very sensitive meters?

At least Metro is attempting to recover taxpayer money lost on a non-working smart card fare system. Is the city going to sue the manufacturer of this barely-functioning water meter system? Why should taxpayers have to fund all these cost overruns for something that doesn’t work? Why don’t government contracts have escape clauses built in to make sure taxpayers don’t get stuck paying for these boondoggles?

And call me a cynic, but which Mayor Brown official (or officials) was rewarded for getting this contract going? That IS how government (especially local government) operates.

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Anne Linehan is a co-founder of blogHOUSTON.